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Harrison Barnes is ruining the Warriors’ best lineup

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What's behind Harrison Barnes' disappearing act in these Finals? Good question! The Warriors better find the answer, though. Otherwise, their Death Lineup loses its bite.

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Harrison Barnes must have heard the same speech that the rest of the Warriors did during halftime of Game 6. Reeling from the Cavaliers’ first half blitz, Golden State trailed by 16 points, but the Warriors knew better than anyone they’re always a couple open shots away from getting back into a game.

The third quarter started. Andre Iguodala, doubled rolling to the rim, swung a pass to a wide-open Barnes on the left side. It was the open shot they needed, but the ball clanged off the iron, long and right. Klay Thompson, pressured on the very next possession, swung the ball around the line to Barnes again in the corner. The shot was off again, catching rim and caroming away.

Those shots were Barnes’ seventh and eighth on Thursday, and the final two he took. All eight shots missed, and Barnes finished the game with 16 minutes played and zero points.

The consecutive possessions sums up his playoffs better than anyone. Welcome to Harrison Barnes’ nightmare.

Nobody expected an even poorer performance from Barnes in Game 6 after his lackluster Game 5. On Monday, Barnes had played 38 minutes and scored only five points on 2-of-14 shooting. But three days later, he was worse in every area.

Barnes is averaging nine points on 39 percent shooting from the field and 33 percent shooting behind the line this postseason, all significant drop-offs from the regular season. His percentage on catch-and-shoot jumpers — shots taken within two seconds without a dribble, per the NBA’s SportsVU data — has deteriorated from 40 percent in the regular season to 29 percent in the playoffs.

Although Barnes hasn’t been any worse in the Finals than he’s been the rest of the playoffs, the Cavaliers have all but stopped guarding him. Tristan Thompson opened Game 6 liberally sagging off Barnes to defend the paint every time the Warriors drove the lane. It’s a trick straight out of Golden State’s playbook, but it’s usually reserved for non-shooters like Tony Allen. Instead, Barnes is getting the humiliating treatment and can’t make the Cavaliers pay.

This is frightening for the Warriors. With Andrew Bogut missing the rest of the playoffs, Steve Kerr went straight to the Death Lineup on Thursday, placing Andre Iguodala in the starting five. The reason those five play so well offensively is because they all dribble and shoot, which either leaves the paint or perimeter open. More importantly, it often forces teams to play without a traditional center.

However, Barnes’ struggles allow the Cavaliers to keep Tristan Thompson on the floor and have him still cover the paint like he’s used to doing. Given that, it’s no surprise that the Death Lineup was outscored by 18 points in 11 minutes of play on Thursday, notching just nine points.

Barnes’ struggles are frustrating because there’s no discernable reason for them. None of the four teams Golden State faced attempted to make life difficult for Harrison Barnes, of course, not with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson and Draymond Green staring them in the face. You could say Barnes is overwhelmed by the pressure of the playoffs, but his stats dipped only slightly during last year’s championship run.

The one added pressure Barnes faces is free agency. Barnes is a restricted free agent this summer, and before these playoffs, most people expected him to get maximum contract offers. Even with his postseason debacle, that may still happen — the rising salary cap means there’s almost too much money for teams to spend during the summer. Although the Warriors can match any offer he receives, there’s a major question as to why they would make Barnes the highest paid player on the team when he’s often not even in the closing five.

Barnes must know what these playoffs and the Finals are about for him: a chance to prove that he’s actually good and vindicate the max contracts that teams are considering throwing his way come July. But that didn’t happen, not at all.

The exact reasons for Barnes’ struggles, and what it means for his future in the league, can be figured out at a later point. Right now, the Warriors have a Game 7 to worry about. Andrew Bogut is out, Andre Iguodala is hobbled and Stephen Curry has only truly looked like himself for a handful of games all postseason. If they can’t rely on the transcendence of the Death Lineup, either? That’s how Golden State can become the first team to ever lose the Finals up 3-1.

Because there’s one game left, though, that also means all is not lost this postseason for Barnes, even as bad as he’s been. If nothing else, the law of averages would indicate that Barnes’ 2-of-22 shooting over the past two games can’t continue to hold like it has. Barnes isn’t this bad, no matter what anyone thinks of him. You can argue whether he deserves the max ad infinitum, but Barnes’ track record as a solid wing player who hits open jumpers and makes some plays off the dribble is much longer than his struggles in the playoffs this year.

One game. That’s all the Warriors need, and it’s all they’re asking of Barnes. Throughout these playoffs, Golden State has run plays early on for Barnes, hoping to give him the confidence early they need from him late. There’s a good chance Steve Kerr tries that again on Sunday.

There’s a chance this is Barnes’ last game in Golden State. One final good game from him — and a championship — would be the most appropriate farewell gift.

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